Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Encouragement from the past

I suppose there are a variety of encouragements that a minister can have. Obviously, he will get encouragement if he looks up to God in prayer and asks him to fulfil his promises of blessing. A preacher can also receive encouragement by looking round and observing the way God may have used him to some effect in the lives of other people. I have received some encouragement by looking back, not to events in my own life (although there are plenty years to explore), but to what God did in my city long before I was born.

Encouragement from those days is dependant on written records and I have been reading about two servants of God who came to Inverness in the past. They were quite different from one another and came here through different means, yet the consequences of their comings was of great significance to the town.

I have to look back a long time to see what God did through Robert Bruce (not the king). He is best known today for his book on the Lord's Supper, but in his own time he was famous for his faithful preaching. In those days, Inverness was not a holiday resort; instead it was a small village on the verge of nowhere and a suitable location for a king to banish preachers who had guts as well as words. Bruce was banished twice to Inverness by James VI (the man who later arranged for the King James Version), but the king on his second occasion (1620s) did not realise that he was extending the Presbyterian cause that he so much detested.

Bruce was by then an old man and not very well. He spoke a different language from the Gaelic of the Highlanders (although he may have been able to speak it somewhat). Yet his time in Inverness was much blessed by God as thousands travelled from all over the north of Scotland to hear the gospel from his lips. This had been anticipated by Bruce because, as he was about to leave for Inverness, he received from the Lord a special commission to go to Inverness and plant a seed that would last for a long time. He received this commission through an experience that many modern Reformed people would shake their heads at (a kind of trance as he was about to mount his horse), but which many Highland Reformed Christians would have regarded as to be expected. My encouragement is not that Bruce had such a profound commission (I have not experienced anything close to it), but that a man in his later decades of life came to this city and was used by God to such an extent that echoes of his ministry were heard in Inverness for over a century – a supporter of the Jacobite rebellions in the first half of the eighteenth century blamed Bruce's influence for the poor support they received in Inverness area (although Invernessians today are quite happy to benefit financially from visitors to Culloden etc.).

I do not have to look back so far for the other story that gives encouragement. Robert Findlater came here two centuries after Bruce, but almost two centuries ago (1820s). He came to a town in which religious controversy was alive, where large numbers of visiting workers were ignored, and where the ecclesiastical systems were ineffective in dealing with the increased population. Prior to coming to Inverness, he had been involved in a three-year revival in Perthshire and so was able to assess between genuine spirituality and formal religious behaviour. He noted that much of what he saw, even in his large congregation of 1800, belonged to the formal.

His response was to preach sermons that exalted Christ and not to use the pulpit for the minutae of Christian experience (he dealt with that in private meetings with individuals). He also realised that it was pointless asking visiting workers to church if they did not understand the message of the gospel. So he supported the setting up of Sunday schools in which such could be educated (today we call it pre-evangelism, but as an Invernessian I am pleased that the idea was here two hundred years ago). His method was successful and people were converted.

Why am I encouraged by Robert Findlater's ministry? Because he shows that focussing on Christ and using a bit of initiative resulted in making the gospel relevant to a growing centre of population.

So looking back as well as looking up helps me to look forward.

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